PART OF THE Tricks and Treats ISSUE
‘She heard of talking chickens, eagles with sparkling, vibrant feathers and a magic needle to whom the rainbow willingly surrendered her colours.’
Extract from Blood and Gold
By Mara Menzies
Published Birlinn Ltd
Rahami and a New World
It is commonly known that death is the most absolute thing in the world. Even though it may arrive at an altogether inconvenient time, it will most certainly arrive. Rahami, Jeda’s mother, had never considered the possibility that it would happen to her. She was a young, beautiful woman. Beautiful because she was sure of herself. She walked with grace and poise. She moved through the cobbled streets, glancing upwards at the exquisite stone buildings, their spires, domes and turrets disappearing into the haar, that thick, magnificent fog that rolled in from the sea and hung low over the city. Wherever she walked, people turned to marvel at this woman whose skin glistened like the midnight sky. They noticed the thickness of her lips, the sway of her hips, the casual confidence she exuded with a flick of her wrist or a slight tilt of her head. She smiled, for despite the differences she knew she loved this place as much as the distant land of her childhood.
Rahami loved words. As she peered through the ghostlike haze she mouthed haar. She had learnt it from a talkative stranger eager to share the wonders of his city. She liked the sound of it. It rolled off her tongue so easily. It was soft and gentle.
She thought of the old stories she had heard of this place. Women accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death. Fresh bodies stolen from their graves and sold for the advancement of science. Murder, torture, incredible wickedness! She imagined that in this magnificent city many of these stories had likely taken place under the cloak of the haar. It lent an air of mystery to everything it touched. Quite perfect for committing a crime.
When she had first arrived, she had tried to fit in, changing her clothes to mirror the grey and the dark. After a few years she realised that even though she was now of this place, she would likely never be seen as fully belonging, and so she decided there was absolutely no need to blend in at all. This city was hers regardless, and so she returned to wearing the bright clothes that spoke to no era or trend. She danced as the buskers played, her body remembering steps from a different world but which matched the rhythms so perfectly. She laughed loudly in places where silence was expected, spoke her mind regardless of who was present.
One day, as she meandered through the streets, she was struck by the striking red stone exterior of an ancient building close to the city centre. Realising it was a portrait gallery, she walked in, keen to learn more about the people so greatly admired for having contributed to this great city. A young man with scruffy brown hair was looking around and was drawn to her inquisitive spirit. There was a curiosity about him that appealed to her. He was nervous and made a terrible joke. She laughed. He smiled and told her of some of the faces he recognised in the paintings. She seemed genuinely interested. He asked if he might take her out. When she agreed, he planned the perfect date, a slow meal and a walk on the beach.
As the sun set, he found her fingers enveloping his. She smiled, and as he gazed into her sparkling eyes he thought that she was perhaps the most beautiful person in the world. They spoke, sharing stories of their lives, their thoughts, their dreams, their ambitions. They agreed to meet the following day, and then the next. They spent increasingly more time together, and Rahami began to notice how the blue of his eyes reminded her of an ocean she once knew, many thousands of miles away. Her eyes followed the curve of his jaw, and when she noticed the thinness of his lips, she began to wonder if those thin lips knew what lips were supposed to do.
Those lips must have spun a web of sweet words around her, as soon the two of them were inseparable. A few years later her skin tingled and trembled as those thin lips sealed their marriage with a kiss and it was not long after they were blessed with a beautiful daughter. They named her Jendayi, for though her birth had been long and arduous, she had arrived safely with a sweet smile. As her grandmother’s name had been Jendayi, which meant gratitude, it appeared to be a perfect fit.
A tiny girl with skin the colour of gold, the thick, full lips of her mother and the round wide eyes of her father. Jeda, for that is how she came to be known, was very much loved. She was a wanted child, and she knew it, for her parents did their best to fill her life with joy.
Jeda and her father would spend the days creating wonderful new things together, using glorious shades of colour and light to bring them to life, but in the evening her mother would fill her world with words. They would snuggle in close together, and Rahami would take a comb and braid her daughter’s hair. She would reach back into her childhood, remembering the stories her father had told her. Stories of the hyena men and the snake women who disguised themselves as beautiful strangers, arriving in villages and tricking gullible young people into marrying them before stealing them away to their fate.
While Jeda had never travelled to the place of her mother’s childhood, she knew it vividly through these stories. She heard of talking chickens, eagles with sparkling, vibrant feathers and a magic needle to whom the rainbow willingly surrendered her colours. Her eyes widened in wonder as she imagined the sheer power of the deities who hurled each other across the Universe: the Mother of Fish in her robes of blue, the awesome power of the deity of beauty and divinity whose yellow skirts flowed as she danced around the world. Time and time again Jeda would insist on hearing the tale of the old hunched woman who, tired of the sky weighing down on her shoulders, furiously knocked it back up into the heavens with her walking stick, where it remained to this day.
But often Rahami would share the stories she had learnt in her new world.
‘Tell me, Jeda,’ she would begin, ‘what would you do if you met a wolf in the woods?’ Then she would weave her story, leaving the child spellbound.
The child grew up with stories of changelings and selkies, of the bogle, of the wandering poet who rode on a horse through the skies holding on to the fairy queen, wondering at the rivers of blood and tears below. She learned of the soldier forced to leave his loved one and how they would never again meet by the bonny, bonny banks of their beloved loch. She heard of princesses flinging their hair out of tall towers and children abandoned to the forest because there was not enough food for them to eat at home.
‘Did the witch die?’ Jeda asked, after hearing what happened following the discovery of a gingerbread house, but Rahami would extend the mystery and leave things unsaid. Fuelled by these stories, Jeda many a time imagined herself playing the roles of warrior, ruler and healer, her dreams being so intense she woke up exhausted. Other times, she lay there, awake, a silly smile plastered over her face.
‘Sleep, precious one,’ Rahami would say, as she gently kissed her daughter’s cheek and stroked her hair before closing the bedroom door behind her. years later, Jeda would remember these moments as perhaps the happiest times of her life.
How wonderful it would have been if everyone loved those stories as much as Rahami and Jeda, but that was not the case. Rahami’s best friend was Aunty, a larger, more opulent version of herself. While Rahami was quiet, Aunty was loud. While Rahami was not overly keen on shopping, Aunty would often arrive laden with bags, exhausted but happy. While Rahami preferred the natural look, Aunty would deftly fold the fabric of richly coloured headwraps into magnificent shapes that framed her face perfectly. Her mascara was thick, her lips a bright red and her numerous handbags were filled with all kinds of interesting niceties.
‘Aunty is coming, sweetheart!’ her mother would say.
‘you’re going to Aunty’s house!’ said her father.
‘Come, greet Aunty!’ Aunty would exclaim as she threw her arms out wide to embrace Jeda. As a child, Jeda never knew her by any other name. The comforting smell of warm bread and cinnamon surrounded her.
Jeda sometimes had the feeling that if Aunty squeezed a little harder she would be sucked into her enormous bulk and disappear forever. But she loved Aunty. There was always something to eat whenever she was around. In fact, if there was no food available within five minutes of Aunty requesting some, she would become visibly annoyed. And if Jeda refused to sit and eat with her, out would come one of her famous sayings: ‘Jeda, if someone eats alone, how can they discuss the taste of the food with others?’
Jeda never knew how to respond to that one, so she would always feel obliged to have a little something, even if it were just a bite.
While Aunty loved spouting words of wisdom, she was less keen on stories. It always began with a kissing of the teeth and a roll of the eyes. ‘Why? Why do you insist on telling her this nonsense?’ she would say to Rahami. ‘She will start having crazy ideas.’
‘Nothing wrong with crazy ideas!’ Rahami would retort, and Jeda would feel a little wave of exhilaration, imagining her mother as David defeating the giant Goliath.
‘Does she know of the Sermon on the Mount? Hmm? How He fed the five thousand? Be wary,’ Aunty would warn, ‘the road you are walking. Stories can be dangerous!’
‘And that is why I am so lucky to have you. you tell her those stories. There are too many others I want to share,’ Rahami would reply, before jumping up, kissing Aunty on the head and attending to something.
Aunty would inevitably raise her eyebrows, gesticulate wildly or furiously cross her arms. Jeda would always leave the room at this point, fearful of being drawn into a loud battle, but had she waited a few minutes she would have found them laughing loudly over some nonsense in the kitchen, chattering away in a language she did not understand.
Blood and Gold by Mara Menzies is published Birlinn Ltd, priced £12.99
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